Life inside the bubble: It's the Irish Open but not as we know it

Welcome to Galgorm Castle, new home to the 2020 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, now listen to that fella in the mask as he tells you where to get your Covid-19 test
Life inside the bubble: It's the Irish Open but not as we know it

A hand sanitising station is seen at a tee box ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort in Ballymena, Antrim. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

That squelch as you step out of the car onto the soggy grounds of a Dubai Duty Free Irish Open venue is almost reassuring.

Here we are, the European Tour is in town, isn’t everything great?

And so it was in Co Antrim yesterday as the Irish Examiner parked up for its annual visit, except this year everything else is different.

This tournament normally draws big crowds but not in 2020.

There should have been masses lining the fairways of Mount Juliet in Co Kilkenny at the end of May only for the coronavirus to stop it in its tracks.

That we have an Irish Open in any shape or form is remarkable but it comes at a cost and chief among them is the absence of spectators. Nor was there the traditional eve of tournament Pro-Am yesterday, another victim of social distancing and public health restrictions.

In fact, instead of a town transformed into a festival venue as Lahinch was last July, the first inkling there is a golf tournament here at all this week does not come until you turn into the drive of Galgorm Castle Golf Club and a billboard confirms this is actually a European Tour event, swiftly followed by a temperature check.

Welcome to Galgorm Castle, new home to the 2020 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, now listen to that fella in the mask as he tells you where to get your Covid-19 test. We are entering “The Bubble”.

A negative result of an at-home test paid for by the European Tour and conducted under the guidance of Irish home testing company LetsGetChecked had cleared the way for travel to Galgorm.

The tournament could have been covered remotely, courtesy of a virtual accreditation, but the decision came from on high that this was an Irish Open and the Irish Examiner needed to be there.

As the second test was conducted yesterday lunchtime following a five-hour drive from Cork, the wisdom of this decision was questioned more than once as another swab was dispatched down your correspondent’s throat until he gagged, then reapplied up a nostril, somewhere beyond tear-inducing and quite possibly tickling the back of an eyeball.

The wait for the test result should not have been more than four hours but entry into the media centre was forbidden before it arrived so plenty of time to re-read the dos and don’ts of life inside a golf tournament in the age of pandemic.

The bubble extends to the tournament hotel half an hour’s drive back — in your own car, no bus or taxi allowed — towards Belfast. Which means once you are admitted, there is no slipping out to buy supplies, have a meal, or even buy petrol, which means a daily shuttle along the A26 corridor between Templepatrick and Galgorm and back again.

Breakfast and dinner must be taken in the hotel, lunch at the course and only in the company of a Tour-appointed media “buddy”.

This has not turned out to be as complicated as it sounds given there are only four members of the written media in attendance this week, but for the record, the Irish Examiner has drawn the Daily Mail as its buddy for the week and he’s well trained.

Sort of.

It all sounds a bit silly and over the top but in this multi-million euro industry, it is entirely necessary to keep contacts to a minimum, infections off-site and the show on the road,

What is more, it has worked. Only one player, Alexander Levy has tested positive since the European Tour restarted in July, while Romain Wattel withdrew from the same tournament as a precaution having been in close contact.

And the tournament bubble has been so successfully maintained because of strict adherence to these rules.

After all, as Shane Lowry reminded us yesterday, things could be much worse than spending an extra few hours every day in a hotel room.

“The bubble is fine,” the Open champion declared.

“There’s plenty of people out there that have lost their jobs during all this. We’re out here doing our jobs, we should be happy, we should feel fortunate the European Tour and the PGA Tour have done a great job in getting us back to play golf.

“I haven’t been in the European Tour bubble yet, I’m just taking my first day in here. I know we’re not allowed out, we’re not allowed to do anything and we’re confined to the hotel.

“But, fortunately enough, we have a nice hotel here in Galgorm this week and it’s not a bad place to be.”

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